With winter approaching, addressing the issues of livelihood, housing and clothing for those displaced by floods and strife assumes greater urgency in the shelters in Assam

The latest wave of floods in Assam has affected over a million people in 16 of the State’s 27 districts. More than two lakh people displaced by the rising waters that submerged nearly 2,000 villages have sought refuge in over 160 so-called relief camps in Assam. Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are also reeling from flash floods and landslides that have claimed at least 35 lives across the three States.

The question is what happens after the initial drama of rescue operations, evacuations, airdropping of food, et al, ends. After all, the present crisis merely compounds the lingering misery and penury from an earlier round of floods, which inundated more than 5,500 villages in 23 districts from mid-June onwards, caused at least 125 deaths, and devastated the already precarious lives of nearly 2.5 million people, washing away homes, livelihoods, livestock and crops.

On a sunny day just before the onset of the renewed deluge, women in Boramari Kocharigaon, a hamlet in Lahorighat block of Morigaon district accessible only by boat, displayed remarkable stoicism as they told visitors that half their village had been lost to the river. They seemed resigned to the prospect of eventually losing their own homes, too, but may not have imagined that their worst fears would come true so soon. Many, if not all, of them must now have joined previously displaced neighbours living in makeshift shelters on either side of a narrow mud path at a slightly higher level than the surrounding areas.

Erosion, silent factor

Many such slender ridges host recurrent batches of refugees dislocated over the years by the mighty, magnificent and capricious Brahmaputra, brimming over now, shifting course every now and then. Some have been living in such “temporary” homes for years. It is difficult to imagine where others currently residing along the crumbling banks of the river and its tributaries — sure to be dislodged sooner rather than later — will retreat to.

The silent emergency of erosion does not make news but it has reportedly claimed nearly 4,000 square kilometres of land, destroying more than 2,500 villages and displacing over five million people in Assam. According to a recent study by Archana Sarkar of the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) and R.D. Garg and Nayan Sharma of IIT-Roorkee, 1,053 sq. km. was lost to erosion between 1990 and 2008.

The figures come to life as a young civil servant mentions in passing that his own village no longer exists. Further probing into this astonishing statement revealed that not only his village, South Salmara in Dhubri district, but several neighbouring ones had also vanished. He estimates that nearly 70 per cent of the South Salmara-Mankachar subdivision is now in the Brahmaputra. The NIH/IIT-R study confirms that on the north bank of the river Dhubri has lost the maximum area (104 sq. km.) to erosion.

Assam’s State Disaster Management Authority is reportedly seeking recognition for erosion as an ongoing disaster requiring an urgent, concerted, multi-pronged and sustained response that can address the short- and long-term basic and livelihood needs of the affected population, as well as environmental concerns.

The recent rains must have also worsened the situation in several so-called camps where large numbers of people continue to live in abysmal conditions over two months after being displaced by the conflict that erupted in late July in parts of Lower Assam located within the Bodoland Territorial Administrative District. A substantial section of the nearly five lakh people who fled to nearly 350 camps then have apparently managed to return home. But close to 40 per cent of them are still in over 200 camps, having lost their houses and assets to arson and looting, or held back by the land verification process initiated by the State government and the Bodoland Territorial Council, or simply too frightened to return to villages in areas dominated by the “other” community involved in the violence.

A day after the latest downpour began, the camp in Bhawaraguri in Chirang district was already ankle-deep in water. “Camp” is actually a misleading misnomer. People from seven nearby villages, including some Bengali-speaking Hindus, who had sought sanctuary in the village boasting a significant number of educated, professional Bengali-speaking Muslims, have had to vacate local schools to enable them to reopen. They were in the process of fashioning provisional shelters for themselves in the low-lying school ground, using whatever materials they could somehow secure. Members of the Bodo and Rajbongshi communities still staying at the Mongolian Bazar camp in Noyapara (Chirang) faced the prospect of moving into the slushy school compound as classes were soon due to resume after the extended break. In Gambaribeel (Kokrajhar), the space where temporary housing was to be provided for the Bodo families currently living in and around the local school was also waterlogged. The rudimentary shacks housing well over 10,000 Bengali-speaking people in a huge open field near Kembolpur in the Gossaingaon subdivision of Kokrajhar district were hardly weatherproof either.

Health services

Considering the health hazards posed by such living conditions it was encouraging to learn that delivery of public health services was fairly regular and on the whole satisfactory, though mental health is obviously a neglected area despite the evident trauma induced by violence, fear and displacement. Nutrition is clearly a problem, with official food relief essentially restricted to rice and dal, occasionally augmented by potatoes. While the availability of milk and nutritious supplements for children varied from camp to camp, there was no evidence anywhere of educational services. Local schools are belatedly beginning to reopen but they are unlikely to be able to accommodate all the displaced children, especially from densely populated camps. Residents of Bhawaraguri were worried about the future of older students, too, with persistent safety concerns preventing them from travelling to attend college. Clothes were also in short supply, with most people having fled homes in panic and few usable garments distributed by way of relief, official or non-governmental.

No one seems to know if and when the nearly two lakh people still living in camps — at least 85 per cent of them Bengali-speaking Muslims — will be enabled to return to their villages or provided with decent temporary accommodation elsewhere. Livelihood remains a challenge for many of those who have ventured home but face an unofficial economic boycott. With winter approaching, the issues of housing, clothing, and so on, assume even greater urgency. Clearly there is much to be done long after the water recedes and violence subsides.

(Ammu Joseph accompanied the Oxfam India team visiting areas where the organisation is providing humanitarian assistance to disaster and conflict affected people in Assam. Email: ammujo@gmail.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion | News